Is it possible that we didn't get the job because of what we don't have?

Managers Miss Out On Promotions Because They Lack Potential

Is it possible that we didn't get the job because of what we don't have?
Is it possible that we didn’t get the job because of what we don’t have?
Image Credit: Doug Bradley

I’m pretty sure that this has happened to most of us: we saw a job that we wanted, we interviewed for it, and we ended up not getting the job. Dang. So just exactly why did we not get the job? It turns out that the reason might not be what you think that it is. In some cases what the people interviewing you may have appreciated your manager skills but they thought that what you missed was a mysterious quality called “potential”. The people interviewing you might not be able to explain exactly what that looks like, or why they think you don’t have it. So what can a manager do about getting some of this potential stuff?

The Problem With Potential

If you want to get that next great job, you are going to have to find a way to crack that code. This is increasingly important for ambitious managers who what to get that promotion. To more employers, a candidate’s potential is as important as past performance both researchers and employers say. Making a good match on both fronts helps companies retain employees longer, especially in a tight labor market. While most companies have set ways of assessing performance, many do a poor job of sizing up someone’s potential. Employers get it right just a little over half the time. Research suggests 40% of internal job moves by people regarded as high-potential end up in failure.

What managers need to realize is that a lot of organizations go astray, in that they lack clarity on exactly what is it we mean when they say potential. Cultural fit, or comfort with the company’s prevailing values and beliefs, is one traditional yardstick for measuring potential, but that approach risks building a workforce that lacks diversity and is slow to innovate or question the status quo. If a company hires for cultural fit, they will find that they’re going to get what they’ve always gotten.

Another method for hiring people with potential is to look for people who seem capable of winning two promotions in five years. That risks gauging competence in only one kind of work, however. One way to view potential is being able to zigzag and succeed in places that are outside your comfort zone. More employers are analyzing their ideal leaders’ behaviors, attitudes and attributes, and looking for people with the same way of working. This behavioral signature differs from one company to the next.

Maximizing Your Potential

Managers who succeed tend to be open, curious team players who can foresee and develop solutions to problems. The best employees have entrepreneurial drive, an eagerness to learn and a desire to help others. Some employers also assess candidates’ career trajectory, or the distance they’ve traveled from their roots. This can be a better gauge of potential than recent performance.

One trait employers try to avoid in hiring managers is the doom loop—a tendency to repeat the same mistake again and again because they can’t learn from feedback. Instead, hiring staff look for people with learning agility—the ability to adapt to new roles, and to listen and respond well to feedback. To crack the code on how your target employer defines potential, network with current and former employees and ask for examples of people who were promoted and why. Investigate the qualities of rising stars there.

So what can you do to demonstrate your potential to decision makers? Here are a few things that you can do during the job interview:

  • Tell how you seized on an unfamiliar opportunity to learn something new.
  • Describe a mistake or failure that you made and how you recovered and learned from it.
  • Be prepared to describe in detail how you met a new or unfamiliar challenge.
  • Give examples of activities on and off the job that show your diverse interests and abilities.

If you are trying to position yourself for an internal promotion, there are four things that you can do that might boost your chances of being successful:

  • Avoid the doom loop by learning to take and respond well to negative feedback when it is given to you.
  • Look for new opportunities to work with people from other departments or teams.
  • Consider taking on tasks you don’t yet know how to do yet.
  • Show interest in leading pressing new initiatives or projects that are important to the company.

What All Of This Means For You

When we apply for a job, we are hoping that the people who are selecting the candidate that they want to hire will pick us. There are times that we don’t get the job. Sometimes this may be because we lack a mysterious quality that hiring managers like to call “potential”. If we want to be able to land jobs that we are going after, we’re going to have to understand what potential is and what we can do to get more of it.

What more and more companies are starting to realize is that a job candidate’s potential is more important than what they have been able to accomplish in the past. When a manager is applying for a job, they need to realize that the company may be looking for candidates who have “cultural fit”. Some companies go looking for candidates who have received at least two promotions within 5 years or who have shown that they can zig-zag through different assignments. How far you have traveled in your career from where you first started can be a good measure of your true potential. Firms want to hire managers who can learn from their past mistakes and not repeat them. You can find out what a company is really looking for by networking with current and former employees.

When we apply for a new job, we’d really like to be able to land it. If we find that we’re being held back from getting the jobs that we want, we need to do some investigating and find out why. If it turns out that the hiring firm is looking for a candidate who has more “potential” than we appear to, then we will need to make some changes. The good news is that potential is something that we can master. We all have the ability to show that we have potential. Use these suggestions to make sure that the next time that you apply for a job, you are seen as the candidate with the most potential.


– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™


Question For You: What is the best way to determine how much potential firms believe that you have?


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